To take to battle as a foot soldier is not the wont of one who has been a general. The trenches is where Leander Paes finds himself as he heads into his 44th Davis Cup tie after being captain for four-and-a-half years. For some, the heat of combat is just too strong a lure; add the spice of ego and the calling is all the more keen.
SP Misra, who lost only one of the 18 Cup matches he played for India between 1964 to 69, is the man in the seat that became too hot for Paes after three players – Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna and Prakash Amritraj – refused to continue under him.
‘Always a leader’
That this is more of a step-aside instead of a step down for Paes is apparent when he told HT: “No matter what role or designation I have in the team, my actions speak of being a leader. For me, the designation is not a big thing, what is important is taking the initiative as a senior member to ensure there is solid work ethic on court and professionalism off it.”
Prodded on the issue the man, who was captain for 11 ties since February 2004, kept sidetracking till it got to him and he burst out: “Captain ban liya, life ko kuch farak parha? Nahin. Ab bhi koi farak nahin. India ka jersey pehn kar khelta hoon, woh bahut hai (I was captain. Did it make any difference to my life? No. Even now, no difference. I play wearing the India colours, that’s enough).”
That Paes switched to Hindi while saying this is significant to those who have known him for long. He uses Hindi to converse with daughter Aiyana. And nowadays his most intimate bits come out in that language.
The India high
So just how tough is it to go back as just one of the boys? “It’s the easiest thing on the planet. If someone can’t get psyched up enough to play for India, they need to get a pulse,” barks Paes. “Okay, I have said this so many times that I sound like a stuck record but why doesn’t it make sense to everybody when I say that playing for India gives me the greatest high. I just love it!”
But surely this time around there would be a bit of more strain within the team as he has been forced out? “Both sides now have to take responsibility, right? Now that I am no longer captain, there should be harmony. I can only say for myself that I will make sure tennis stays the primary focus.” What he does not say is, of course, the ego that drives both parties. Both have a point to prove — Paes as the eternal warrior, the rebels as having to deliver when what they believe stymied their performance is no longer an issue.
‘Davis Cup bigger than me’
The Paes captaincy issue has anyway been left on simmer. AITA has been categorical that Misra was appointed for the Romania tie. The federation found itself in a corner when it was informed that the three rebels would not turn up for Romania unless Paes is out of the chair. Interested parties floated the names of Vijay or Anand Amritraj as replacements. AITA president Yashwant Sinha, confirm sources, was adamant that Paes not be replaced. However, this time it appears that Paes has taken the diplomatic course instead of his usual head-on approach. “If I was the problem between India fielding its best team or not, then the solution was simple. Remove me and the best team can go. Now, let’s perform. Davis Cup is bigger than me. It means representing our people.”
Giving up the seat may have also been a good move for his career. “Arre baba, I am playing so freely now. I am so relaxed. Even going into the tie I am relaxed nahin toh one has to make hazaar calculations.”
Not thinking of quitting
It’s another irksome question that he has fielded enough times but then the obvious too must be posed. “Play Davis Cup for how long? You know since I was a child I used to love going out to play tournaments as it meant a plane ride. Strangely enough, that child-like enthusiasm before a big event has still not gone.
I don’t even want to think of quitting.” Even Indian tennis does not want to think of who after Paes. Till now, the many others have only flattered to recede.